What an… interesting show. Sword and Flower premiered this week, and it’s a fantastically executed show from a cinematic standpoint—amazing clarity, colors, lighting. It’s a feast for the eyes… though maybe not the ears. Because sumptuous visuals aside, the other elements, from tone to characterization to pacing, are rather uneven. I’m still working out whether I think this show is going for serious or silly, epic romance or comic farce. At least the ride will be pretty.
SONG OF THE DAY
Electric Eels – “최고의 연애” (Best romance) [ Download ]
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We begin with a narration that gives us the nuts and bolts of the story to come, told to us by Princess MU-YOUNG (Kim Ok-bin). She is the daughter to King YOUNG-RYU, the second-to-last king of Goguryeo, which puts this story close to the year 642.
The Goguryeo kingdom is facing increasing attacks from their neighbors of the Tang Dynasty, and a difference of opinion has the king at odds with his general, YEON GAESOMUN. The general wants to go to war, Young-ryu prefers strategic planning.
Then there’s YEON CHOONG (Uhm Tae-woong), son of Yeon Gaesomun and Princess Mu-young’s “love of a lifetime,” of whom she wonders, “Would it have been better had we never met?”
Mu-myung asks despairingly, “Why did Goguryeo fall?” As the camera pulls back from the close-up of her face, we see that she sits in the charred ruins of a palace.
Time to back up. Traveling along a mountain road, a royal entourage conveys the princess and prince (played by Lee Min-ho). Arrows come flying in as the party is ambushed: Bodies fall and the guards shout to protect the princess. A chase ensues.
At the palace, King Young-ryu (Kim Young-chul) addresses his council about Goguryeo’s conflict with its neighboring kingdoms. His advisers argue for more aggressive measures against possible Tang invasion, and while Yeon Gaesomun (Choi Min-soo) remains silent, it’s clear he’s a leading force in that faction.
Young-ryu argues, “Do you know what war entails?” He has fought with his own sword to defend this nation, and Goguryeo is in no condition to go to war. Young-ryu addresses General Yeon specifically: “It is not the strong who survive—it is those who survive who are strong.”
The council is silenced, but Yeon Gaesomun finally opens his mouth. They must act immediately, he declares, starting with replacing the chief minister (Goguryeo’s highest ranking state office). With Tang on the verge of invading, they need someone strong and swift to action, the implication being that the current chief minister is weak and incapable. He also happens to be present, all, Guys, I’m standing right here.
The king disagrees—the country’s stability is the priority, and the naming of the prince as successor should come first. Both men are strong-willed and convinced of their respective stances. Impasse.
The princess’s entourage remains under attack as they are chased. Mu-young momentarily takes the reins to drive the carriage while her guards fight off the assassins, who shoot a constant barrage of arrows her way.
Thanks to Mu-young’s level head and one badass bodyguard (JANG, played by Ohn Joo-wan), they make it within the city walls and keep the carriage rolling despite the fierce battering it gets from the wild ride. And then another set of fighters joins the chase via chariot to take down the attackers.
The court face-off between the king and the general is interrupted with the news of the attack: Tang forces have struck the princess’s procession.
But no, it’s General Yeon and a faction of his officials who concocted this plot, framing it as a Tang act of aggression. They hear that one survivor was captured by the guards and worry that their scheme may be revealed.
Elsewhere in the city, the general’s son Choong steps out and heads down the street just as the princess opens her carriage window. They pass each other in slow motion amidst rainfall, as befits their dramatic epic romance.
Princess Mu-young’s carriage is followed by a prison wagon, which holds the hostage they captured from the ambush. Choong makes his way to a rooftop nearby, then lets fly an arrow. The prisoner is shot dead, and the crowd erupts into screams and disorder. Ah, so he kills the loose end, to prevent him from incriminating Yeon by spilling what he knows.
Mu-young jumps out of the carriage and spots Choong in the distance, who makes his exit by leaping from rooftop to rooftop. She grabs a sword and charges after him, while bodyguard Jang does the same.
Choong pauses to wrap his face in a scarf before resuming his escape, knocking aside guards like it ain’t nuthin’. Jang gives him a harder time and they swordfight in close quarters until Choong slips away, heading upward to rooftops again. I’m noticing there is a lot of music in this drama. A LOT OF MUSIC. Normally I like music, but it’s getting a bit onerous.
Anyway. Choong leaps a wall and lands safely… at swordpoint. Mu-young stands on the other side wielding her sword, though she doesn’t attack. Then Jang jumps in and Choong fights him, making his getaway after getting sliced in the arm.
Jang heads to an inn, where Choong commands the attention of an admiring crowd by shooting an arrow through an apple while blindfolded. He sure was quick to find safety and assume a cover, though Jang still gives him a close once-over with a suspicious eye.
He moves on, though, after noting that Choong’s arm is clean. A few seconds later, though, the blood starts seeping through and soaks his sleeve. Whoops.
Both men stand stock-still, assessing the tense moment, waiting for an opening. Slowly, they both reach for their swords… and then a woman pulls Choong aside and interrupts the moment.
Choong watches Jang leaving the building, and then we shift to what must be flashback. Are we in a flashback in a flashback in a flashback now?
In the memory, a display of Choong’s shooting prowess attracts the attention of a man, who follows him out. He offers up a job making good use of his skills, which is of no interest to Choong until he hears that it will put him in contact with “someone very high up.” He asks if he’ll be able to meet “him.”
In the present (er, still flashback, but one level up on the Inception-o-meter), Choong takes a look at a pendant, one side of which bears a drawing of a woman’s face.
It’s the woman we next see, who walks with a younger Choong (another flashback, oy). Young Choong asks his mother where his father is and why they don’t live together, assuming that his father kicked Mom out of the house because she was a slave. His mother assures him that his father is a good person, and gives Choong the necklace. You carry around a necklace of your own face?
Safely back at the palace, Princess Mu-young informs her father of the second group of fighters who saved her in the attack. She guesses that they work for the king, which means he was anticipating something of the sort.
Mu-young next finds Jang, who isn’t merely a bodyguard-warrior but also her cousin. He also happens to be the next king of Goguryeo—not a spoiler, the show labels him as such—so it isn’t too hard to imagine the conflicts lining his immediate future. Mu-young speaks of the tension plainly, noting the perverseness of a fate that makes her brother not want to be king, while Jang is unable to be king without becoming an enemy.
Jang answers, “Fate can be changed.” Yeaaah, I think we call that murder. The words sound ominous to her ears, but Jang covers it up by saying that he means her brother will overcome his fate.
Mu-young seeks out the warriors who came to her rescue, now that she knows they’re part of a secret group serving the king. She thanks them and asks for information, hoping to confirm her suspicions tying recent events to the Yeon family. However, there isn’t enough concrete evidence to draw any conclusions. The leader does offer up one of his younger men, SHI-WOO (Lee Jung-shin), to help her out whenever she needs.
While she’s out and about, Mu-young browses the marketplace and stops at a shop selling hair ornaments. There, she notices a man who happens to stop by to look at the same table, and he captures her interest. Quite intensely, at that.
He looks at her with an expression of Ooh, pretty, so apparently they’re still strangers at this point. An accidental hand touch kick-starts the instant attraction, with a very oddly placed pop song to mark the occasion, and they cutely steal glances back and forth.
But when she works up the nerve to speak, she finds that he’s gone. Mu-young catches a glimpse of him walking down the next street and keeps apace with him… only to find him gone again.
She sighs in disappointment, and turns to find him standing behind her. They trade bashful smiles, and then he spies danger hurtling at her in the form of a wagon and yanks her out of its path.
She goes whirling through the air, flipping upside-down into Spiderman kiss mode, and the camera does the full slow-motion 360 whirlaround. I’m rolling on the ground laughing. This is embarrassing for both of us, Show.
Then they’re back with all four feet on solid ground, smiling again. The editing on this show leaves something to be desired. How about some context?
Flower petals flutter down, marking one-half of this show’s title and symbolizing the start of love. I’d give you one guess as to what the other half of the title means, but I think we all Get It Already.
General Yeon’s co-conspirators cackle in glee now that their one loose end has been tied (er, shot). Now there is nobody left to tie the princess’s attack to them, which they concocted to give them grounds for declaring war with the Tang.
The head conspirator asks if General Yeon has a candidate in mind for the new chief minister position. Yeon just gives the man a pat on the shoulder as if to say it’s his.
Choong arrives to see General Yeon, and we can see how much this means to him, his first time speaking with his father. Yeon says not a word, and so Choong is the one filling the long silences, saying that he came alone, that his mother has passed away, that he tried to see General Yeon before but was turned away every time. That’s why he took on this task—even though it was his first time taking a life—so he would get the opportunity to see him.
Choong waits expectantly, hopefully, for some sort of response. It’s almost painful, the intensity of hope you know he feels.
But General Yeon merely says, “There is no place for you in this house.” Choong walks away silently.
Mu-young goes to bed clutching a flower petal, taken as a memento of that encounter with Choong. She relives the moment, smiling.
It’s a different kind of night for Choong, who feels the weight of his father’s rejection. But as he looks up, a flower petal floats down in front of his face, and he catches it. At least the memory of Mu-young seems to lift his spirits, if just a bit.
General Yeon gets a missive calling him to the palace, because the king has uncovered the mastermind of the prisoner assassination plot. Yeon’s advisers warn that this may be a trap to kill him, and they insist he not go.
Mu-young practices her swordfighting with her father while discussing her suspicions. King Young-ryu is aware of the danger General Yeon poses and the need to be rid of him, but knows that one false move could backfire on him. However, the king says that if he doesn’t come to the palace tonight, Yeon Gaesomun cannot survive. I presume because staying away points to Yeon’s guilt.
That night, General Yeon does in fact head out to the palace with his retinue of men, and presents himself at court. The meeting itself is one-on-one, with the king awaiting him in his empty throne room.
The king begins by acknowledging that the Tang dynasty is sure to grow stronger and invade Goguryeo. They’re both in agreement of the inevitable danger; it’s their respective strategies that are at odds.
The king states, however, that General Yeon went too far in faking a Tang attack. He intends to keep the incident quiet, for the sake of national stability, and is even willing to compromise on the matter of the chief minister. But there’s a quid pro quo: He wants the prince named successor. He gives Yeon time to reply, but warns that it won’t be long.
Mu-young returns to that hair ornament shop in the marketplace, thinking of Choong. Oh god, that awful pop song is back. Okay, I take that back; the song is quite catchy, but it’s in a John Hughes ’80s high school way.
Mu-young looks around hopefully for a glimpse of Choong, but the closest she gets to finding him is a poster bearing his blindfolded face. It’s presumably for his arrow-shooting displays, but it bears the distinct resemblance to a Wanted poster, which makes it hilarious. She tracks him to the inn by comparing the backdrop of the ink drawing to the landscape. Tell me you’re laughing too.
Too bad for her the building is empty. Sad Trumpet scores the moment as she waits, and waits, and waits.
And then, from above, Choong peers out. It’s actually rather sweet, even though the screenshot has a distinct creep-o vibe to it.
It’s enough to change his mind—he had been ready to leave town, but now decides against it. He’s also determined to take on “proper work” now, and heads out.
Mu-young perks up to see him leaving and follows, though she’s contending with the crowd that gathers around him while Choong’s sidekick sprays the sidewalk in fliers. Okay, this music is starting to bother me now. It’s like something out of Gidget, and Uhmforce is Moondoggying his way down the street like a stud.
But I guess he deserves it ’cause he is a stud, as he demonstrates more of his archery skills by shooting apples blindfolded. The crowd cheers in admiration, with Mu-young joining in the enthusiasm.
For the next round, the sidekick solicits a “brave lady” to help out, and that’s when our couple meets eyes. Choong starts walking straight for Mu-young, stopping in front of her and asking, “Will you trust me?” She nods.
I feel like Sword and Flower is two shows mashed into one, or perhaps even more than two. You’ve got the artsy war epic with the tragic romance at the center, which is the show I was expecting based on all the promos and taglines. It’s beautifully shot, with lingering pauses (some might say too lingering, but potayto-potahto) and moments weighted with gravitas, as befits a historical action-coup storyline.
Then there’s the offbeat goofball side, which I admit took me by surprise. Unless it’s not doing that on purpose, in which case it’s a different story. But let’s assume the flippant tone is intentional, and that they’re doing this with a sense of purpose. Maybe the electric-guitar metal ballad is a cheeky nod to… something… and the bouncy pop track is meant to give the tragic lovers a… peppy juvenile bent to soften the blow?
Or maybe it’s the rebirth of Strongest Chil-woo, though not as absurd and with a decent production budget. There are some moments that feel like cheeky parody, but the drama’s not stylized enough to be The Good, The Bad, The Weird, or even Kim Ok-bin’s fusion sageuk romp movie The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan (aka 1724 Gibang Incident). It’s just a bit quirky. Which is totally a thing, and it might even be totally your thing, in which case go for it. I fully encourage you to watch it to decide whether the style suits your taste or not, because it’s not inherently bad.
As for me, I have limited patience for self-indulgence. Sword and Flower employs the opposite of spare storytelling of the sort where every beat is important and no moment wasted. Rather, this show luxuriates in excesses, whether it’s long silences or the same flashback shown four times. It takes twenty seconds to walk across the room. There’s no need for that. And then he walks back.
To be fair, I’ll play devil’s advocate: It’s quite refreshing to have a drama showcase a different rhythm from the standard broadcast stuff. Often shows fall into so much of the same old beats that even when the plots are completely different from one another, they all start to feel very similar on a gut level. We find that “twists” lose their twist, characters lose their minds, and clichés make us want to shoot something. Maybe the writers. So I do enjoy the feeling of being knocked back a little and agitated by an unfamiliar rhythm. It keeps me on my toes, and I think there’s a place for that in dramaland. It’s just… does that rhythm have to be so slow?
I’m all for art films and breathing moments, but I’m not sure this is the most compelling use of those breathing moments, because I found myself getting antsy throughout. Watching somebody tap his fingers for long stretches of silence can be quite compelling and tension-building when you do it the first time, strung tight with anticipation. When we’re halfway through the premiere and we’re in the fifth example of such pacing, though, it just feels pretentious.
Speaking of which, there’s a lot of camera work with off-centered shots, close-ups of eyes and lips and chins. It actually looks really cool at first, especially with the high film quality, but again it’s the incessant repetition that kills it. Then I’m left grumping, Can you maybe just shoot a whole face in one frame? I don’t want to watch a whole drama in jigsaw!
Okay, criticism aside, I think there’s a fair amount to recommend the show. Mostly the visuals, which are neat. Yes, there’s a lot of pretty for the sake of pretty. But even if style trumps substance, style itself is a worthy element to elevate, isn’t it? So on that score this drama is doing something pretty cool, and the mishmashing of tones can be a welcome experiment, if that kind of thing doesn’t drive you batty. No guarantees on that.
The king versus the general is predictable so I don’t much care for that clash, but the two actors are fantastic and make the ideological gridlock feel important and dire. Who can do gravitas and badassery better than Choi Min-soo? He gives his character dignity as well, so we’re not approaching him as an outright villain. Both leaders are actually on the same page, which is what makes the clash so unfortunate.
So far I’m liking the character of Mu-young quite a bit. Even if she fell in love for no reason. I know, I know, romance meet-cutes are never about logic—but still, I didn’t get the WHY of it all. And I do want to feel for a romance on a gut level, otherwise there’s no excitement in watching it develop, and thus no pathos when it all goes to pieces. But she’s a princess who fights with a sword, runs after bad guys, and drives a speeding carriage like a mofo. What’s not to like? Furthermore, I really dig how the king treats her, keeping her in the know and grooming her almost as his real successor. From very brief mentions of the young prince, it seems he’s rather weak and timid, and he definitely isn’t the one engaging in sparring sessions with war-hero dad. So she’s competent and fierce, and she’s going to make one helluva angel of vengeance in the very near future.
The hero, too, has an interesting layered back story that adds a nice depth to his character. Being illegitimate is a burden he’s lived with all his life, and with his mother now dead he’s only got his absent father left as a family connection. More than that, I feel like he’s built up a lofty picture in his mind all his life, and it’ll probably be really crushing to watch the reality come crashing against that vision. It’s hard to imagine how desperately one must crave that father’s love to kill someone just to get to meet him.
And although General Yeon dismissed Choong in this episode, I’m sure we’ll see Choong scrabbling to keep the connection alive. Should make for some juicy conflict when Dad uses him as a tool against his enemy, and he ends up betraying the love of his life because of it.
I do feel that the main plot is old hat at this point—the story isn’t pushing my buttons, but I’m going with it. It’s similar enough to other dramas to make comparisons inevitable, and I’m not sure Sword and Flower is aiming to shake off those similarities. The Princess’s Man is probably the most obvious connection with its similar Romeo-and-Juliet romance and the “You[r father] killed my father, prepare to die” revenge premise, but there are shades of others, particularly with the coup machinations that form the framework of practically every sageuk ever.
But you know, we’ve had a whole lot of middling sageuks come by lately, and some outright crappy ones, with the number of solidly produced and artfully presented ones in the far minority. So Sword and Flower certainly beats out much of the crop, and it’s well-acted to boot.
Personally, I’m struggling to jump into it because the style is so not my bag. And this is a drama that is so heavily dependent on style that it’s pretty difficult to divorce it from the content. The style becomes content. I actually enjoy the serious tone, and I think I enjoy the oddball lightness even more, but when they’re both in play it’s disconcerting jumping from one to the other. Ultimately the story is always the thing that makes or breaks a drama for me, so I’ll keep up for as long as that keeps me going.
- Uhm Tae-woong as high-flying moony-eyed bodyguard in Sword and Flower
- Love and revenge go to war in Sword and Flower
- Couple stills of Sword and Flower’s tragic lovers
- Sword and Flower’s first poster and script read
- (The other) Lee Min-ho plays royalty for Sword and Flower
- Choi Min-soo cast as Uhm Tae-woong’s father in Sword and Flower
- CN Blue’s Lee Jung-shin joins Sword and Flower
- Sword and Flower lands one lead, still casting others
- Uhm Tae-woong drops Yi Sun-shin, considers Sword and Flower